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Taoist standing practice - for health, strength and athletic development

Jayne Storey explains the Taoist standing practice and how it helps to strengthen the bones and tendons, increase core stability and develop a powerful competitive spirit.

The benefits of Standing Practice (Zhan Zhuang) in martial arts circles are legendary, as each of the Shaolin and Wu Dang temple arts (T'ai Chi, Hsing Yi, Wing Chun etc.) used standing or rooting exercises as part of the mental and physical discipline required to perform kung fu at an advanced level. Founded as an individual art by Wang Xiang Zhai (1885 - 1963), Standing Practice has an even older history in Taoist and Buddhist cultures, even as far back as 500 B.C.

The 6 Benefits of Standing Practice

  1. Physical strength and stamina
  2. Relaxation
  3. Grounding
  4. Breathing
  5. Opening the energy gates of the body
  6. Cultivation of intrinsic energy
  7. Other benefits include correcting misalignments of the skeleton and cultivating a calm mental state ('Here and now' thought).

The First Posture

Wu Chi, also known as the posture of 'Emptiness' is the mother of all standing poses, the easiest posture to hold with the body, yet Wu Chi challenges the mind and mental state if you are not used to being still for extended periods.

Wu Chi - Structural Points

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width wide or slightly wider
  • Unlock your knees and sink your weight into the balls of your feet
  • Gently tuck under your lower back to take out the lumbar curve
  • Relax your shoulders
  • Let your arms hang down naturally at your sides, with your palms gently touching your legs
  • Keep your chin tucked under, to take the curve from the neck and hold your head upright, imagining the crown of your head is suspended by a balloon on a thread
  • Gently touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Breathe in and out through your nose.
  • Relax all the muscles of your body and try to be aware of your breathing.

Try 3 minutes at first and gradually work up to 10, 15 or 20 minutes

The 6 Benefits Explained

The benefits of Wu Chi have been verified by Physiotherapists and Chiropractors, as essentially, this posture helps to correct muscular-skeletal misalignments and relieves pressure on the lower spine and the neck areas. Cultivating calm, aware "here and now" thought - which you will gain through the extended practice of Wu Chi - is fundamental to all 'mental game' training.

1. Physical strength and stamina

Standing aims to increase muscular strength and endurance in two main ways. Firstly, most people use more muscular effort to perform any given task than is required. By learning to use the minimum amount of effort necessary, we are in effect, increasing the efficiency with which we use our muscles. Additionally, we are learning, though standing, not to use muscle groups that are antagonistic to the task we are trying to perform - i.e. we stop fighting ourselves.

Secondly, standing excels at developing the postural muscles. These are deep fascia muscles that, as the name suggests, hold the skeleton in position. These muscles naturally have greater strength and endurance than the phasic, or movement muscles. Through training to rely more on these muscles (using body structure rather than brute force), we can begin to use the whole body in our movements, rather than one isolated part. Also, holding the posture(s) is physically tiring - it is real exercise!

2. Relaxation

We are aiming to achieve a state that the Chinese call "sung". This describes a state that is relaxed, but not to the point of floppiness that we in the West sometimes associate with complete relaxation. It is more like the softness of a bale of cotton, which is so dense that it can stop a bullet. As previously mentioned, we are aiming to use only the correct amount of muscle tension needed to perform the task, and no more.

3. Grounding

Grounding is the result of relaxation coupled with the correct alignment of the skeleton - i.e. proper body posture. This allows the weight of the body to fall naturally to its lowest point. Without correct alignment and posture, true relaxation is not possible; an effort is required to hold the body up!

4. Breathing

If we drop the diaphragm and expand the belly, rather than expand the rib cage and puff out the chest, this has several advantages:

  1. Relaxation - "Abdominal breathing" encourages the awareness to fall to the centre of the body, helping to create a feeling of sinking and relaxation.
  2. Efficiency - Most people use only a small portion at the top of their lungs during normal breathing. Abdominal breathing inflates the lungs from the bottom up, allowing a much fuller breath.
  3. Massage - The contraction and expansion of the abdominal cavity during abdominal breathing have a massaging effect on the digestive organs, which is beneficial for general health and well-being.

5. Opening the Energy Gates of the body

As we learn to relax and let go of stiffness, the body will begin to "open up", allowing greater circulation of blood and energy ("chi"). Certain points on the body are vital, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), about the exchange of energy with the environment and circulation of energy within the body. The three energy gates of the spine are of particular importance, as opening these is the first step in encouraging the circulation of energy up the spine (governing vessel) and down the middle of the front of the body (conception vessel).

This circulation is known as the small circulation or "microcosmic orbit" and connecting the two vessels is the reason for placing the tongue at the roof of the mouth. The energy gates of the spine are located at the base of the spine (tailbone gate), between the shoulder blades (dorsal gate), and where the top of the spine meets the skull (jade pillow).

Other gates include the centre of palms (lao gung), the centre of soles of feet (yong quan), trown of the head (ba hui), perineum (hui yin), and of course the "reservoir of energy" (t'an tien), located approximately 2" below the navel.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, as there are many energy gates all over the body. Instead, it is a simple introduction to the area where kung fu and TCM theory meet. Many people have trouble accepting the existence of energy gates, meridians and chi, and blind faith in their existence is not necessary to progress in Standing Practice. However, as your training develops, you may find that your opinions change.

6. Cultivation of intrinsic energy

Most Eastern cultures accept the existence of energy which can be absorbed through air and food and developed within the body through certain postural/movement practices. In the West, we have no such concept; so many people find thinking of chi as vitality is a helpful solution. One thing chi is not, however, is some mystical force that can be harnessed to give the practitioner superhuman powers. Martial artists (such as the Shaolin monks) who can display feats that defy the laws of reality usually are showing the results of extreme mental and physical conditioning and correct physical connections/alignment.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • STOREY, J. (2006) Taoist standing practice - for health, strength and athletic development. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 30 /March), p. 8-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • STOREY, J. (2006) Taoist standing practice - for health, strength and athletic development [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Jayne Storey is a specialist in T`ai Chi and uses this to help athletes and teams with balance, posture, body mechanics, attention control, coordination, stress management, mindfulness and also to create the right internal conditions for accessing the sporting zone/flow state.